Walk around Valencia at mid-morning any day of the week and you might be surprised to see people sitting down to eat huge filled baguettes, washed down with a small beer or maybe a brandy-spiked coffee. Is this a very early lunch, or a late and boozy breakfast? It’s neither. In Valencia, eating almuerzo, a hefty mid-morning snack, is a way of life.
It makes plenty of sense when you realise that most restaurants here are still closed at noon. If your stomach’s rumbling, the bad news is that you might have to wait until at least 1.30pm for lunch, and most Valencians don’t usually eat until 2.30pm or even 3pm. How do people survive until then? Eating a good almuerzo is the solution.
A typical almuerzo starts with a dish of olives or salted peanuts on the table, swiftly joined by a bocadillo, a half or whole baguette filled with anything from ham and cheese to fried calamari. Otherwise, you might go for a thick wedge of tortilla de patata (potato omelette) served with crusty white bread, or grated tomato and serrano ham atop a piece of toasted baguette. With this you’ll get a beer or soft drink, and the meal is finished off with a small coffee. This is typically an espresso or a cortado (an espresso with a dash of milk) or – why not – a carajillo, with a splash of brandy. All of this costs no more than about €5 in most bars and cafes.
This particularly Valencian custom is said to date from times when most people worked out in the fields, eating only a tiny breakfast when they rose at dawn, then filling up properly later in the morning once the most urgent tasks were out of the way. Many people, including city-dwelling office workers, still eat this way today. Lots of people have a small breakfast, or skip it altogether, in their rush to get to work. But no one skips almuerzo.
As you can see from the groups of friends and coworkers carving out 20 minutes for almuerzo at a local bar in even the busiest workday, there’s no sign of the tradition changing anytime soon. And why should it? Eating four times a day seems like a great idea to us, especially when there’s so much good Valencian food to be enjoyed.